On the occasion of the 21st Biennale of Sydney, SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement (16 March–11 June 2018), the Victorian College of the Arts and University of Melbourne partnered with the Biennale to facilitate the visit of artists Tiffany Chung, NS Harsha and curator David Elliott to Melbourne. The following discussion is an edited extract from a public conversation held at the University of Melbourne's Federation Hall on 19 March. Chung and Harsha reflect on their participation in SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement, curated by Mami Kataoka, delving into the role of exodus and asylum, materiality and cartography and the possibility of artistic activism in their work.
I first saw one of Harsha's cosmic floor paintings at the Biennale Jogja XI in 2011 followed by Adelaide International in 2012, curated by Victoria Lynn. At Jogja XI, Reminder (2011), consisted of delicately painted glowing white, blue and yellow orbs of varying sizes clustered around a long, slim, slick of black paint that appeared to have been splattered, Pollock-esque, like a crack in the floor. Harsha's technical virtuosity is combined with reflections on geopolitical order and disorder, orientation and disorientation. He completed a MFA in Painting in the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda in 1995 and a BVA in painting at CAVA in Mysore, India where he continues to live and work. His work entwines strands from personal biography with the shared narratives and broader sociopolitical scenarios of our macro/microcosmic world, conflating local and global, earthbound and celestial, personal and public stories in quietly philosophical and luminous works. In 2017, he held a major retrospective, Charming Journey, at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo (4 February–11 June 2017), and in 2018, he opened his largest solo UK exhibition in several spaces across the Glynn Vivian in Swansea (7 July–9 September 2018).
Tiffany Chung works across a plethora of media including watercolour, embroidery, found footage, sourced documents and paintings to interrogate global issues of migration and displacement. Her large-scale embroidered cartographic textiles reconstruct exodus histories and asylum resettlement from Vietnam between 1975 and 1996, carefully and delicately mapping out escape routes and migration trajectories accompanied by watercolours of Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong. Using a forensic methodology of collecting classified data conflated with archival records, academic studies, ethnographic fieldwork and first-hand testimonies, Chung layers stories and statistics in poetic and powerful ways. Born in Da Nang, Vietnam, Chung is based in Houston, U.S.A. and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She studied art at California State University, Long Beach and completed a Master of Fine Arts from University of California, Santa Barbara, and is currently working towards a major solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Tiffany Chung: Vietnam, Past Is Prologue (15 March–25 August 2019).
Prior to the ensuing conversation, Harsha and Chung presented a précis of their work with Chung performing an excerpt of her scripted lecture performance on historical amnesia: reconstructing histories from fragmented records and half-lived lives, for which she poetically narrates her family history of displacement fused with historical events and personal moments.
I wanted to commence by asking how each of you became artists? Was there an epiphany moment?
Tiffany Chung: Well, my story is quite funny. I had always wanted to become a writer rather than a visual artist. But when I was very young, I accidentally came across the studio of the two neighbours living next door to me in the U.S. Somehow, they got involved in drugs and had to flee, so the landlord of the apartment building asked me to go in and help clean up their mess. Then I discovered all these paintings by the woman who lived there and also the photographs of her husband who was a documentary photographer. So I got all these brushes and empty canvases for free and I thought, 'oh this is interesting, I could be an artist too!' That's how I started, and there was no turning back.
NS Harsha: For me it was the usual childhood story. I was always drawing as a kid, and I think my first drawing was from when I was seven—which I exhibited recently. I was drawing all kinds of things and doing rangolis for my mother because she was not able to do them herself; then I failed at science, so my father looked up an art school, which was close by. I didn't know it was an art school; they said it was an architecture school, so then I came to know about all these terminologies that I had never even heard of.
Tiffany can you share your research methodology with us? It seems incredibly forensic and meticulous, in terms of how you approach archival material, records, photographs, and interviews.
Chung: I always combine academic research with ethnographic fieldwork. I do a lot of research online and I also do library research. After that I go to archives to look for archival records; you have all these documents, written texts, and scholarly essays. But I also want the real experience—the testimonies of those who were involved. So I try to track people down and connect with their communities. With the Vietnamese refugees, it was easier because I am part of that exodus history, so to go where a certain community is and to get connected is not difficult. I usually don't come in with a list of questions, I just try to be part of the community and listen to their stories. After 40 years there are so many stories, and people really want their voices to be heard. So even if you don't ask questions, they tell you all their stories anyway, to the point that I would memorise everything by heart and I would go back to my hotel and take notes.
With the current refugees I don't really do ethnographic fieldwork, but I position my work from a policy angle. I compare Vietnamese refugee history—the asylum policies that emerged and were imposed on the Vietnamese in the past—to the asylum policies that come out from Europe now. But I do go to Europe, as you see in the photos of me teaching refugees. I just try to be useful and I constantly keep myself in check by asking myself questions about what I am doing.
Harsha, you trained in Baroda and have drawn on the miniature tradition in India. Can you elaborate on how the miniature format informs your work?
Harsha: My teacher was Nilima Sheikh, and she has this amazing knowledge of miniature paintings. My work has been dubbed as miniature painting many times, and to be honest the only thing that I share with the idea or the history of miniature painting is the panoramic view of life; because you get to see life from a distance, which I always like. Other than that, I don't have the same project as my teachers of revisiting and bringing those qualities into painting. I've been saying that I'm more interested in comics and the popular arts. I have this huge collection of 400 comics.
But I do get excited about painting. Recently I discovered Itō Jakuchū, the painter from Japan, and it's absolutely stunning to understand his paintings. All his contemporaries were painting temples and buddhas, but he was painting poppies and fish and whatever—he was a bit of a pop guy. And in his paintings, he imagines elephants and tigers—I imagine he had never seen an elephant but painted an elephant by listening to what it looks like, I just love that. These are the kinds of painters I go and visit and find; just silly things, like being a painter.
Carved elephants appear in your work at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the Biennale of Sydney, Reclaiming the Inner Space (2018). It's a densely, complex wall work in relief comprising collected boxes, mirrors, and painting—it's almost like a universal cosmology with some materials sourced from markets in Mysore. Can you tell us about the work?
Harsha: Elephants are like dogs and cows for us; we just live with them. The first time I was told that the elephant is very exotic I started looking for this word in the dictionary to try to understand what it means. Even now I spend so much time with elephants. About five years ago, three elephants just came into the city, dragged one person and killed five people, and there was a moment where this young raucous elephant tried to go into the big bazaar, or supermarket, but then decided to walk on the lane next to it. I just wish it had some time inside the bazaar as well. All these things come to me as a kind of package, and I have to negotiate my space with form.
The new piece comes out from the abstract walks that I do in the market space. I've devised a new way of walking in these big supermarkets, because they've come into my space and I cannot run away from them. Sometimes I take friends on these abstract walks to calm them down. They don't always need to go to an ashram; they can also go to the supermarket to calm themselves down. It's this kind of retinal competition—since I work with painting and imagery and all that—between all these new things that hit me in my eyes; all these brands and boxes and everything. I kept these boxes in my studio for two years; I didn't know what to do with them, and then suddenly the work formed on its own. Elephants come in because elephants have always been portrayed as the weight bearers of humans: they've always been painted carrying an emperor, or things belonging to humans or that are the weight of humans, and I've found that it's interesting to put them in this context where they're carrying time and weight.
Tiffany, you also deploy a material diversity in your work at Artspace for the Sydney Biennale under the rubrik of exodus, displacement and diaspora. In Vietnam Exodus Project (2017), there's an embroidered textile, a series of watercolour paintings, declassified records and found footage. Can you talk about how you compose and arrange your work in an ensemble?
Chung: I usually start out a project with maps. Through research, I often come across them and want to learn about the history and context around these maps. However, with the Vietnam Exodus Project, collecting and analysing research materials came first. There is a vast amount of literature on the post-1975 Vietnamese refugee crisis. However, certain narratives tend to get repeated while other information and factual events remain obscure. The findings I made during my research work at the UNHCR in Geneva (2015–2017) particularly play a crucial role in shaping the angle from which I position this project. Although I'm most interested in the lesser-known or less-established narratives, my work also has to unpack the policies that emerged and were imposed on the Vietnamese refugees during this period. With the findings from the UNHCR, my work indeed remaps the Vietnamese refugees' trajectories to the Global South, and examines the impact of the policies on this group of the population.
Showing only the maps doesn't really cover the scope of the project. I constantly try to negotiate and come up with ways to present both facts and the visual representation of those facts. The visual work is just a way to draw people into the discussion of the subject. So the display of different kinds of materials comes really naturally. That's what I do, which is hard to explain, but it's just like my research process—I keep taking notes, write, compile data and do a lot of data analysis; then come the maps and other works. I have to show records and video footage to guide the audience into this complex work.
I wonder if you could both delve into your communal activism—Tiffany you've explained to us how you work with refugees and you teach refugee communities. You're also a founder of the not-for-profit art space in Ho Chi Minh, Sàn Art, with Dinh Q. Lê, and Harsha you've worked with children for a long time. Do you both see yourselves as artist activists?
Harsha: I don't think I'm an activist in the powerful way that Tiffany deals with issues; I think that's why I never became an activist myself. If I can't guide myself, how can I guide others? I've worked with kids just out of passion, and compassion. It is fantastic to be with them and at the same time let my mind loose and learn a lot. Yesterday, Kate Daw asked me, 'are you ready to speak?' and I said, 'I'm ready to listen to the students.' There's a big difference. There are quite interesting challenges when you work with this age group, between 4 and 12. I love creating platforms for that age group to experience.
If I come across humanitarian issues in my day-to-day life, I deal with them as a human rather than as an artist. It seems unknowing to me, rather than as an active or conscious decision, to kind of raise my voice. There were certain paintings in the early 2000s, where I really worked with the farmers, but I couldn't justify it. I'd rather work with the farmers and the community and then keep my studio practice slightly apart from that whole engagement so that it seeps in in a different way. I think it would be wrong if I were to say I'm an activist when I work with kids.
Chung: Well, I don't think I necessarily take positions, or at least I try to stay sober in my work. I think a lot of people see my work as a form of activism, and I don't oppose that; but I don't consciously tell myself that I'm an activist. When I co-founded Sàn Art with Dinh Q. Lê and two other artists, it really came out of a necessity: we did not have an art space that bridged the local art community with the international art community. And we happened to be those that had the opportunity to go outside of Vietnam and study, and really decided on coming back to Vietnam to work and be part of the community. That's how we started.
For the refugee work, with this erasure of history, I thought it was important to resurrect that history. Of course it comes at a cost. But it's OK. With my work teaching Syrian and current refugee children in Denmark, one thing just led to another—I just wanted to be useful. My refugee projects started with art. People often say, 'that's so useless!' But through art I've found people, or they've found me. All these people came out of the woodwork, including policy makers, when they saw the first part of my Vietnam Exodus Project. Some human rights lawyers in Hong Kong who had worked on Vietnamese cases in the past saw my work and came looking for me.
A lot of former Vietnamese refugees that live in Hong Kong are stateless—not having a passport or citizenship. After meeting and working with these lawyers for two-and-a-half years, I was able to convince them to re-open the stateless Vietnamese cases. It was the beginning of a very long and difficult journey, but I'm not afraid of going beyond art into this kind of unknown territory because I want to be useful, and I want to prove that art is not useless.—[O]